Monitor your unintentional ageism

You’re not ageist, are you? In fact you don’t approve of ageism. You know some lovely old people. Naturally, you will never be old, you are ageless or young at heart. You’ve got nothing against old people per se, just that they are all so <derogatory adjective>.

If you make ageist remarks, it’s not intentional. Now what?

1st principle of talking about ageing and older age: Shift associations with frailty, vulnerability and dependency. Page 6 of A Guide to Talking About Ageing and Older Age.
1st principle of talking about ageing and older age: Shift associations with frailty, vulnerability and dependency

The British Centre for Ageing Better has put out a terrific Guide to talking about ageing and older age that we can download for free. Short and sweet and easy to read. This is not about institutional ageism or cultural ageism, but about the ageism that lurks unnoticed inside our own minds. Yes, it’s largely a product of the endemic ageism of our society—which pops out in the words we use, the things we say. And so unconsciously, we reinforce society’s ageism. As the title declares, the Guide to talking about ageing and older age suggests what we personally can do as individuals. It’s about familiar words and phrases that we use without thinking, and what they imply. In general terms they advise:

  1. Shift associations with frailty, vulnerability and dependency
  2. Use preferred terminology
  3. Avoid “othering” and compassionate ageism
  4. Don’t stoke conflict between generations
  5. Think carefully about imagery
3rd principle of talking about ageing and older age: Avoid "othering" and compassionate ageism. Page 8 of A Guide to Talking About Ageing and Older Age
3rd principle of talking about ageing and older age: Avoid “othering” and compassionate ageism

Words have power. Sure, they reflect and communicate our own thinking. But if they’re ageist words, they reinforce an ageist attitude of which we are very likely unaware.

Ageism is fear of your future self

The most bizarre thing about ageism is that it springs from a fear of yourself. Fear—or disgust, or anger, or dislike. Your previous self, who has been aging from day one. Your current self, who is different from yourself ten years ago. Your future self, who will either die young or become old.

Here, all the talk about loving oneself crashes down. How about loving your future self? Hard, when we cannot imagine being ten years older. Harder still, when we subconsciously categorise old people as not-us.

I had a burning-bush revelation myself a few years ago, suddenly realising that I harboured two unpleasant and contradictory attitudes towards aging. I called them Smugilla and Glumia. Both “othered” old people, seeing them as a breed apart—although I was 75 at the time! Awareness was all, and I honestly believe that I’ve banished those two nasty little voices for good. I only hope they didn’t burrow into your brain instead. Here’s my poem about discovering my inner ageists.

Ageism without within

I found ageism rampaging
in my neighbourhood
in job descriptions and prescriptions 
in jokes and compliments and ads
on every screen, in tips and fads
on videos and TV shows
on greeting cards, in camouflage
and tiny acts of sabotage.

I found it looming over me
on billboards big and bald.
(The assumptions, the assumptions
dooming youth to aspirations
dooming age to loss and pain.)

And then I met the advocates
of ageism within— 
Glumia of the sorrows 
and Smugilla that nasty bitch —
using my mouth to speak their nonsense
sniping and sneering and whining
and mocking the other, the alien old
from a podium under my skin.
       ~ rachel mcalpine in How To Be Old

Ageism within without: a poem about discovering my own unwitting ageism

Resources for quietly monitoring hidden ageism

Guide to talking about ageing and older age from the Centre for Ageing Better

Old School— a clearinghouse for all things anti-ageism

Yo, is this ageist?

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21 thoughts on “Monitor your unintentional ageism

  1. Cathy Cade says:

    We tried hard to get my mum, in her seventies, to go to a n over-sixties lunch club. My sister would have dropped her off and picked her up…
    but she said she didn’t want to have to sit and talk to ‘all those old people.’

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      My dad was the same. Freaky, ay?

    2. srbottch says:

      My mother was the same, even at 92

  2. I found ageism to be huge as well. I was on LinkedIn and they now have a whole news editorial team that write nothing but articles like “How to attract a Gen Z candidate” and “What are Gen Z looking for in a new job” and “Amplifying Gen Z voices,” etc. I commented on the article and pointed out that it can be construed as ageism. The fact that they’re placing so much importance on how to attract a very young Gen Z candidate tells me right there that they are encouraging companies to hire only younger above someone seasoned and older. It really is unfortunate and I’m very passionate about crusading against this injustice.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      You make an excellent point. That’s worth fighting..

  3. alison41 says:

    Hearing you read your poem made it come alive. More, please ?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:


  4. My Mum, in her 80’s, used to regularly go to help out at functions for the “old folks” as she called those in their 60’s and 70’s.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I dunno. Human beings!

  5. Christine says:

    Ageism also applies to our often disparaging attitude to younger people. We use the word ‘youth’ to mean ‘lout’, and we generalise about young people lacking knowledge and maturity. There is more to this topic than banning images of people using a walking stick, imho.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      And perhaps this also, in a way, sometimes spring from hatred (or jealousy?) of ourselves… When we were young.

  6. Rachel McAlpine says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Principle #3 is exactly that: “Don’t stoke conflict between generations.”

  7. judithhb says:

    More things to think about. Thanks Rachel.

  8. LA says:

    Well said

  9. srbottch says:

    I wrap my arms around ‘ageism’ if it gets me a Senior discount. Hey, I’ve earned it…😎. Loved the poem.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      We get senior discounts from 65, which is premature for some, just right for others.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    I am so enjoying reading about the long lived women in my past. Right now it is Lucy Durham who at 39 went to San Francisco to live among the Chinese and learn the language then on to what was then Canton at 49 to be a missionary. She didn’t return to retirement until she was 76. I managed to escape the inner voice of attack, probably because I had always known about those long living aunts and great aunts off doing great things.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s wonderful. How good to have enough role models that a good old age becomes, in your mind, the norm.

      1. Elizabeth says:

        It really always has been. I never thought to question it until I read your post.

  11. Joared says:

    Very good article on ageism. I’ve often found old people as others describing here, speaking despairingly of other old people, some their contemporaries, based on their age. Perhaps we all need to listen more carefully to our own words

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Listening to ourselves is always a good start 🙂